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Whose right is it anyway?

This is more of a knee jerk reaction/revelation that occurred to me after I attended a colleague’s dissertation talk about Mechanical Turk, crowd work, digital labour and the future of work. What they essentially spoke about was a deeply intimate account of their encounter with Mechanical Turk (the crowdwork platform run by Amazon), their intervention to build Turkopticon (a platform from which ‘Turkers’ talk back) and finally, their thoughts on alternatives to top-down economies such as MTurk, Uber and others where workers are relegated to independent contractor positions without benefits or redressal rights and work for extremely low wages (10 cents an hour on MTurk). What troubled me, I guess, is the falling back on the imagination of co-operative models and unions as well as the evocation of the term solidarity, assuming that the publics constructed around such economies have any commonalities or larger affinities to the collective identity of being a Turker or an Uber driver.

Across my research on Uber and readings on taxi drivers (as done by Sarah Sharma, Biju Mathew and others), the questions of immaterial labour, emotional and risk labours associated with taxi driving are very much highlighted. As I go through realms of academic material on taxis and yellow cabs before ridesharing disrupted the market, it’s a striking realization that the issues haven’t changed at all! In that sense, they make my research on ridesharing slightly less exciting for novelty purposes but very sobering because they point to continuities, something that theorists of technology are not often thrilled to reckon with.

Coming back to the crowd work talk, a member of the audience asked a question about the publics of crowd work at large – the recruiters, workers, mediating companies. The speaker also briefly addressed the variety of workers on Mechanical Turk (Americans but also many Indians) and then moved on to say that not all conversations in the Turker community are positive or solely dedicated to knowledge building about Turking. To me, it seemed like they conflated ‘crowds’, ‘publics’ and ‘community’ – which all have different connotations for me. While crowds maybe incidental and accidental, publics may unsuspectingly form around patterns of consumption and conditions of production, communities definitely carry a more deliberate, aware and empowered meaning.

My question (echoed by the responses that I have been getting from Uber work) was that how do we start talking about assembled publics – those assembled by conditions of production and capital accumulation, not as innocently and naturally in alignment or solidarity as citizen subjects of different physical socio-economic contexts ? Surely, the Indian Turkers or the Indian call center employees (as Winifred Poster’s work shows) are being exploited because their wage expectations (as determined by their physical/national lifestyle and salary structures) are lower. But it is also the truth that 1) having lower wage expectations isn’t necessarily a bad thing (because it depends on what you define as good wage and the particular configuration of social support within which it is framed) and 2) platforms like MTurk and Uber are havens for those who do not fit within or have lapsed out of ideal citizen-making projects of different countries (as Sarah Sharma shows with immigrant taxi driver troubles and something that I am grappling to address in Uber work). For instance, Sharma narrates the story of an immigrant driver who came to the United States to become a doctor and started driving in a bid to settle down before starting education but never managed to return to education because he always had some bills to pay, visits to make back to his homeland and finally, no time left after driving. Mathew highlights the fact that in order to get a TLC (Transport and Limousine Company) hack license, which is a necessity apart from the regular commercial license, drivers would have to undergo compulsory 80 hours of driving, language and etiquette training, making their initial investments too big to just move on. An Uber driver I spoke to had migrated from Libya a few years ago before the 2011 Civil war because he was simply lucky to get a refugee visa but upon arrival, since he had to start afresh, get certifications that could allow him to be absorbed into regular full-time jobs, he has been driving for a while till he can get back in. What many other interviewees said is that they loved ridesharing because you don’t need a degree or expertise to drive and there was always space for more drivers.

They are not just in-between jobs or transient employment because economic demands change but also because as a trickle down of who has the right to be employed in an economy in crisis, immigrants, those with foreign diplomas, those without the language skills and cultural knowledge to stake claims to jobs will definitely start preparing to blend into the citizen/worker crowd.

Conversations about legality, rights and payment are anchored to physical geographies for good reasons and when unanchored, what can a universal discussion mostly emerging from the First World do for those who are inextricably employed and oppressed by the platform they work for? For example, if we start talking about minimum wages for hundreds of independent contractors that form the backbones of such economies, we cannot simply rally for minimum wage or some sort of a right for universal recognition because the seamless ‘digital’ nature of these enterprises fundamentally changes how we can talk about the right to be employed or paid.

Starting a conversation, then, about worker unions, solidarity and economic protections from within First World geographies, then,  may not really change the terms of work and employment for the real underbelly in the Global South. I think the argument can be extended to the (legitimate yet problematic poverty porn of) sweatshop discussions. Indeed, sweatshops are terrible because they function on uneven financial geographies but we must simultaneously interrogate those who think they are horrible. I guess what I am broadly trying to signal at is that in conversations on ‘minimum wage’, and what constitutes respectable thresholds of worker treatments, unless we find ways to include those who are employed by MTurk, Uber etc without having to uncritically fall back on the ideas of unions and cooperatives as universally good, we might find ourselves (as academics and activists) working against those who we seek to speak for.

To elaborate, Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent Boston lawyer has filed a class action lawsuit for independent rideshare contractors in the U.S. to be recognized as employees – a move that is widely being criticized and feared in driver communities because salaried employment status will land them in conflict with their existing and potential full time jobs, business enterprises or the windows of leisure that they have flexibly created by driving for Uber. Even further, the wage conversation appeared irrelevant to some of the Uber driver and passengers I spoke to in India because they had no conception of minimum wage with regard to taxi driving. What they wanted is to break even and get better returns. They reminded me of pirate modernities, subaltern urban forms and informal arrangements outside the legal structure; basically telling us that the State/Market-citizen/worker relationship is not either the German (pro-welfare) or the American binary (free market) but a lot of in-betweens. In which case, what citizen/workers expect from work itself needs longer and wider engagement.

In both cases, a blanket critique of the existing work configuration (and a work present/future) because it does not sync with how “we” imagine fair work and welfare is dangerous as it seeks to erase the work public (bound by temporal and financial needs) in search of the work community unicorn. What is also at play is that such theorization flattens the otherwise uneven landscapes of digitally enabled work because when it starts to locate the entire MTurk public or Uber public as a digital public, we gloss over the race, class, gender and citizenship etchings on bodies and at the same time, we also turn unions (or any other alternative to current crowdwork systems) into universally understood categories, which they are not.


Lilly pointed me to a bunch of readings that might benefit everyone:

Life Support by Vora and Cultures of Servitude by Ray and Qayum. Priti Ramamurthy’s work on feminist commodity chains: “Why Is Buying a” Madras” Cotton Shirt a Political Act? A Feminist Commodity Chain Analysis.”

I would love to hear more thoughts on this and if any writing has already been done 🙂


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Accountabilities of crowds

Cross-posted to HASTAC blog. I’m posting a lot lately. It must be finals week.

Google Image Result for http://sselblog.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/wisdom-of.jpg I’ve been worrying about the wisdom of the wisdom of crowds lately, as evidenced by my Mechanical Turk post. “Wisdom of crowds” is a Silicon Valley religion, like libertarianism and market liberalism. (I’m going off of participant-observation from 10 years of being a valley citizen myself*, but Fred Turner documents these threads carefully.) I find “wisdom of crowds” to have a dark side to “wisdom” that comes from slivers of contributions made by people who don’t know what they’re contributing to and likely don’t have a chance to profit from their participation. Amazon Mechanical Turk, where many people make about a dollar an hour making extra cash to make ends meet, is an example of this dark side. What are ethical conditions under which crowds should labor? (I asked 67 Mechanical Turk workers this very question myself: 67 Turkers Bills of Rights.)

Not only do conditions of work become difficult to account for when the workers are millions of microtime workers. Emergent genderings, racializations, and other modes of differential injustice also are hard to track down. Wikipedia’s story of open participation and user agency becomes a cover story for not worrying about how power and authority gets distributed. For example, I strongly suspect there’s a bias against women in who is considered notable enough to have a biography. I’ve known several women who have had the appropriateness of having wikipedia biographies challenged (danah boyd, for example) while less notable men go unchallenged. Like with the liberal politics of individual choice markets, lots of people get a vote but the powerful often set the agenda and win. And like neoliberal racial politics, when everything is about individual choices and agency — when practically anyone can edit an article — we don’t have to talk about race and gender, right?

Both Wikipedia and wisdom of crowds logic generally have a commitment to emergence and a commitment to getting the right answer — the neutral, objective truth. And in their attention to outcome and mass, the people get blurred.


*I heard one Silicon Valley CEO rationalize cooperating with Chinese censorship laws by explaining that doing business with China bolsters its middle class, which leads to democracy. I’m not saying “omg how could you do business with that regime” — no government is perfect, so it is about what kinds of business. But markets and democracy are well-yoked in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial do-gooding.